No election? Is it good or bad?

Following Gordon Brown's confirmation there will be no autumn poll Sian Berry reflects on the up and

So, there’s no election next month after all. I wish I had put money on that outcome a fortnight ago, when literally everyone was telling me it was a dead cert to happen.

This did include several journalists and political forecasters, and some of the shrewdest politicians I know, so I think it probably was at some point ‘on’. But events intervened (not least the genius of whoever organised the collective protest that involved people who couldn’t be bothered with it all telling ICM they were staunch Conservatives) and so it’s all off.

I have very mixed feelings about this episode. I don’t know whether to feel annoyed or relieved, jilted or let off. So, since my creative writing juices are all being used up meeting a book deadline, no well-thought-out analysis from me this week, just the tired old lazy blogger’s option of a couple of lists…

List one: top three reasons why not having an election is a good thing.

1) End of Brown bounce double-think

Brown is less ridiculously popular at last. The past few months have been one of those periods of collective amnesia right out of Orwell. As soon as he became PM, everyone - including normally sensible political editors - seemed to forget he’d been running the country for ten whole years and actually to believe ‘everything had changed’. Thank goodness that’s all over.

2) Tory true colours revealed

David Cameron’s New Lovely Conservatives™ have revealed that they are still a bunch of toads after all. Like a magic spell in a Grimm fairy tale, as soon as the mild panic of an imminent election campaign swept over them, the evil lurking under the spin was revealed. With unseemly haste, they ditched their paper-thin greenwash, hid the still-warm Quality of Life review under the sofa, and announced a bunch (yes, another bunch) of tax cuts for millionaires instead.

3) I don’t have to go canvassing for weeks and weeks in the dark and/or cold and/or wet.

Generally I love canvassing, but I had an autumn by-election last year and it can be awful this time of year. When it’s cold and dark, not only is it hazardous on all those unlit basement stairways, but you lose all the feeling in your hands, toes and lips after half and hour and, to make it worse, the success of each doorstep encounter is measured in how much heat you can allow to escape from the canvasee’s house. A carbon disaster – in my world all elections would be in June.

List two: top three reasons why I’m a bit gutted

1) Re-start of Cameron cult?

Despite the party’s overall nastiness being reconfirmed, Cameron himself has had a bit of a boost. He had been looking increasingly crappy in Brown’s new unspun world of grittinesss, but with the press all annoyed with the PM now for leading them up the garden path (and despite what has to have been one of the dullest and least passionate party leader speeches in history) Dave is flavour of the month again. I despair!

2) We were, actually, just about ready for this.

Given the long notice of the possibility of the ‘snap’ election, we were well on the way to having a great campaign ready to roll. We have more candidates selected than at any comparable point, our policies are in better shape than ever (largely thanks to the work done on our carbon-costed budget earlier this year) and, organisationally, we were all set to campaign like mad in our three target seats. Yeah, we could have had ‘em, bring it on, etc, etc.

3) We won’t after all see the first Green MPs next month.

Last May we topped the poll in local elections in our target seats in Brighton and Norwich. So, in a snap election a few months afterwards, we’d have had a great chance of repeating that achievement and making history with the first Green MPs.

However, waiting is not such a bad thing. It does give our recently selected candidate, Caroline Lucas MEP in Brighton, more time to build up a deeper rapport with voters there. With longer to campaign, and with far better candidates than the other parties, a delay at least lets us make sure we’re best placed to win in our target seats when Brown finally decides he has an iron grip on people’s voting intentions – or when his time runs out.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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